Apr/May 2011 Book Reviews

Fifty Plants That Changed the Course of History

Bill Laws.
Fifty Plants That Changed the Course of History.

Crows Nest. 2011. 226 pp.
ISBN: 978 74237 2181

Reviewed by Ann Skea

Buy now from Amazon! This is a handsome book, a delight to look at and a pleasure to hold. It is also a pleasure to read, not just because each page is beautifully illustrated but also because of the unusual, unexpected and fascinating histories it charts.

That said, this is a book for browsing, rather than for reading straight through. Each page is packed with facts. The Latin names and common names of each plant, a brief outline of its importance to us , the history of its uses and misuses, and countless small details (often presented in a separate box to the side of the main text) all give the reader a lot to absorb, but everything is presented in a humorous, easy-going way laced with plenty of curious anecdotes. Did you know that Queen Elizabeth I is reputed to have invented gingerbread men to amuse her courtiers? Or that willow coffins are the latest must-have for the ecologically minded? Or, indeed, that Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, in about 1150, advised adding hops to drinks as a preservative?

Bill Laws' choice of fifty plants which have changed the course of history, (or as the book's blurb says "had the greatest impact on civilisation"), includes many that you would expect: tea, papyrus, cotton, tobacco and rice. But there are also many unexpected inclusions, like lavender, saffron, Sweet Pea, the Dog Rose and pineapple. Pineapple finds a place here because this tropical "collection of individual fruits pressed together to form a whole" prompted such interest when it was first presented to the English King Charles II by his gardener, John Rose, that it caused much experimentation with pits of steaming manure and the building of 'glass houses' to aid its cultivation in cold climates. After that, 'hot-houses' grew in size, sophistication and popularity, resulting eventually in huge constructions like Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace in London and, on a much smaller scale, the conservatories and greenhouses which grace so many modern family gardens.

Other plants with long histories which are still part of our everyday lives are White Willow, the source of aspirin; Cacao, from which chocolate is made; and, more disturbingly, Coca and the Opium Poppy, both of which have valuable medicinal uses but which now also fuel the illicit drug trade and cause serious social problems.

Laws is outspoken about the evils some plants have caused and still cause including wars, slavery, smuggling, organized crime, addiction and ecological damage. Perhaps surprisingly, sugarcane is one plant he sees as both valuable and dangerous. It has been the historical cause of human misery through slavery and economic disasters, and now, with refined sugar in almost everything we eat, it has changed our digestive systems to the extent that sugar addiction is a serious cause of obesity and ill-health.

Bill Laws weaves together strands of ecological, political and agricultural history in Fifty Plants That Changed the Course of History. His scope is worldwide and ranges from the words of early herbalists to the discoveries of modern science. He draws inspiration from myth, legend and occasionally early philosophers. The illustrations come from art, history, old magazines and modern botanical photography. Altogether, Laws has done a fine job and Quid Publishing, which conceived and designed this book, have made sure it looks as good as its contents.


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